With world class wine, good food, beautiful scenery and a huge choice of outdoor activities, Mendoza was always a must-visit destination when we were planning our travels.
The region is responsible for 70% of Argentina’s wine, which is increasingly becoming internationally renowned. Many wineries are working hard to refine their processes to produce the best possible quality. Classic Argentinean Malbec is the most famous, but vineyards also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Carmeniere and other varieties.
Mendoza was definitely a highlight of our travels so far and our visit to Bodega Ruca Malén for their lunchtime tasting menu with wine pairing was a highlight of our time in Mendoza.
The beautiful setting could not have made a better first impression. Hundreds of rows of lush, verdant vines stretched into the distance against a backdrop of the snow capped Andes mountains.
We were invited to take a tour of the vineyard and winery. We learnt how the 1000m altitude and climactic conditions of the region are ideal for producing small berries with a thick skin, necessary to make the best wine. It is important to make the grapes suffer by not watering them as much as they would like, so the size of the fruit remains small and packs more flavour. (I thought this was a lovely metaphor; having an easy life is conducive to blandness but a bit of a struggle can lead to interesting complexity and better taste. I will think of Malbec grapes next time things don’t go my way!)
It was towards the end of the harvest period, so we could spot bunches of taut, juicy grapes on the vines, ready to be plucked by workers moving quickly up and down the rows.
These grapes are very different from eating varieties; although they have plenty of delicious flavour, the thick skins are difficult to digest. We were warned to eat no more than a handful to avoid a stomach ache (with difficulty, we complied – it helped knowing we had a multi course feast soon to come!)
Bodega Ruca Malén is a relatively small winery, producing 700,000 bottles a year, of which 60% is exported. The winery uses many efficient processes, such as using rejected stems and plant matter as fertiliser. They also sell their byproducts on to companies which use them for making pigments and cosmetics (the antioxidants found in the grapes are valuable to this industry).
Our guide also explained how wine is clarified using egg whites, very similar to the classic French technique of clarifying consommé. Apparently the staff spend hours cracking and separating eggs, and are allowed to take the yolks home, where I imagine they make buckets of mayonnaise!
After clarification comes aging. Barrels are very expensive and French oak is the best (bien sur!). One barrel can cost over £1000 but can only be used for 3-4 years, after which it is sold for just 250 pesos (£35) to be made into furniture or parquet floors.
One day, my dream house will have reddish-purple Malbec stained French oak floors…
With the tour wrapped up, we were ready to taste the wine we had learned so much about. We made our way to our table and eagerly awaited the five course lunch, each matched to a different Bodega Ruca Malén wine.
The starter was humita (creamed corn), local Granny Smith apples, creamed toast, lemon cream, crisp caramelised onion slices, roasted almonds and fresh herbs. This was paired with Ruca Malén Chardonnay 2011.
The citric aromas and acidity of the Chardonnay were brought out by the thin slices of fresh apple, while the oily notes of the creams and onions provided contrast. Everything was balanced by the nutty flavours of toast and almonds. I really liked the presentation: a fun, quirky “paint by numbers” style that helped you identify what the various blobs on the plate were.
Next was caramelised beetroot, glazed carrots, local olive oil and fresh ricotta cheese, paired with Yauquén Malbec 2012.
Not the most photogenic plate, but a lovely combination of flavours. The sweetness of the root vegetables complemented the light soft tannins of the Malbec. The ricotta cleansed the palate, encouraging you to continue eating and drinking!
After that we were served seasonal mushroom risotto croquette, pumpkin cream, red chilli pepper jam and herbed oil, alongside Ruca Malén Petit Verdot 2011.
The earthy mushrooms and spicy chilli jam matched perfectly with the wine’s deep mineral, spice and balsamic aromas. The acidity of the wine balanced the creamy pumpkin.
The main had to be steak, of course: lomo (fillet) grilled a punto with pumpkin millefeuille, creamed potatoes, smoked aubergine, grapes and fresh rosemary.
For this course, we were offered two pairings which complemented different elements of the dish. Ruca Malén Reserva de Bodega 2010 had a complex character and spicy notes which were perfect against the sweet grapes, pumpkin and tender flesh of the dish. The bold, mature Kinién Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 highlighted the flavours of herbaceous rosemary, the earthy, smoky aubergine and the steak’s charred crust.
We managed to find room for the final course of raspberry ice cream, quince scented with mint, candied orange and caramel cream.
This was matched with Ruca Malén Brut – unusual to pair the pudding course with a sparkling wine rather than a sweet dessert wine, but in this case the freshness, acidity and delicacy of the sparkling wine worked well with the dish’s sweet yet sharp fruit flavours.
After all that, a sunny spot on the lawn became an irresistible spot to lie down for a few minutes to aid digestion. We woke up a couple of hours later, still a bit woozy but utterly happy and relaxed. The staff at the Bodega just let us be – they must see plenty of food/wine comas!
The next day we travelled to Maipú, a rural wine making area about 45 minutes outside of Mendoza city. We hired bikes and had a lovely day cycling the 40km flat routes between the various vineyards and wineries, stopping for tours and tastings along the way.
At one point we were alarmed to see a police car crawling behind us. Mark begged me to try to minimise my drunken wobbles but we weren’t in trouble – the local police have very little crime to work on so spend their days escorting wine tourists!
After a while the tours became a bit samey, especially with distractions like sunbathing and cute puppies.
Mendoza is also traditional gaucho land and we were keen to take in the scenery on horseback. We signed up for a ride, led by a real life gaucho, who serenaded the group with traditional guitar songs by a crackling fire after dark.
The next day we found the local bus for the thermal hot springs for some much-needed downtime.
Before we left Mendoza, we squeezed in a final wine experience, having both vertical and horizontal wine flights at a fantastic wine bar and shop in town called Vines of Mendoza.
We learned that a vertical flight is a tasting of several wines of the same grape (in our case, Malbec) but of different vintages. A horizontal flight is a tasting of several grapes from the region, but of similar vintages.
We waved goodbye to Mendoza and hopped on a 20 hour overnight bus (long enough to give our livers a bit of a break) to Salta, another hub of Argentina’s wine industry, famous for the up and coming Torrontés grape.